I think that those of us who have moved around, especially internationally, but also within the same country, have at one point spoken a phrase, or written a paper, saying “I will not be changed by my new surroundings,” or something like “this won’t change who I am.” I once believed that was how it had to be.
Moving from place to place, many things change. Everything from the language or currency, to the particular music or clothing that is fashionable. Upon arriving somewhere new, chances are your reaction won’t be to feel right at home. At first the surroundings might be exciting, exotic, and new, which of course is not a bad thing, but what all that really means is that at some level you have to feel that “this isn’t me, it’s not who I am.”
Often when we face this situation we see two possible ways to deal with it. Firstly, try to become as similar to the local culture as possible in order to fit in, discarding “the old you.” Secondly, resist all change, stick to what you know, what feels safe, and “who you are.” For me, the second option seemed like the only way to go. It was easiest, and felt safest, and I reasoned that I would betray who I was if I didn’t choose that option. When relocation is into a pre-existent local community, rather than an always changing international ex-pat community, this becomes even easier as the “foreign kid” label quickly sticks.
The unwillingness to adapt to local culture often leads to communities of expatriates, living together, or at least sticking together, forming their own cultural spheres where they interact with the local culture without having to submerse themselves in it. While I thought I was resisting change, I was also very cautious of the “ex-pat” group, because they often failed to experience their surroundings, and were generally negative towards anything other than their home culture. While I didn’t want the new to change me, I also enjoyed the excitement of it.
Eventually, through interaction with our surroundings we slowly adapt. We learn the finer details of the local culture, and it changes the way we participate. I guess it’s not impossible for someone to observe people and then consciously use their traits in order not to appear different, but that must be rare. As we interact and behave in the prescribed manner, use the local phrases and jargon, it all becomes a part of us. So perhaps if you really are set on resisting change, then the ex-pat clique is the only option.
The other common reaction I mentioned is consciously trying to fit in. I don’t think I have ever identified much with this way of doing things, but I have witnessed it on occasion. Just think stereotypical exchange student in the movies, or parents trying to be cool or hip adopting current youth culture. Most often this approach appears awkward and forced. It often seems to leave a person without their own identity, as they fleetingly adapt to gain the attention of new friends.
Looking back on things now, I realize I haven’t identified the third option, which was probably closest to what I was actually doing. This is finding the balance between resisting change and actively pursuing it, namely living life and growing with your experiences. Everything we do will affect us in some way, and what we do, and what we can do, is partly our own choice, and partly what is available to us in our surroundings. While we may not initially like aspects of the local culture, our immersion in it will eventually change us. But this must be natural. If somehow you manage not to change, you’ll find that your “home” has changed. Culture is not stagnant. Culture is changing, and people are changing. By living and interacting with each other, either at home or abroad, we are changed. Surviving cancer will no doubt change a person, but so will the habit of a grocery store, over time. The subtle things that take years to learn, that perhaps we aren’t aware of until we see someone else do it wrong, change us.
I think one of the things that has helped me the most is my ability to forget. Forgetting how things were makes it easier to deal with how things are now. Or at least resisting the urge to constantly compare and whine. But at the same time, I can’t forget. When I see pictures of roads I used to drive on, trails I used to bike on, I instantly know how that place feels. And it pains me. I pick up my guitar and sing a few country songs and I can’t help but think about where I used to hear the same songs. Most of the time I manage not to think about these things. I try to keep busy, involve myself locally, and find new trails to ride, new roads to drive on, new views, and new experiences.
Yes, some things are worth holding on to, but they are not worth obsessing about. Sitting at home reminiscing will get you nowhere. Going out and experiencing life will move you forward. What once seemed strange and foreign may become an integral part of who you are.
My thoughts may be a little scrambled, but the point I’d like to make, for my own benefit, is not to let memories of my past inhibit my future.